Biting and Devouring

In the second reading of this Sunday’s Mass, St. Paul contrasts the commandment of love with “biting and devouring one another”. Pope Benedict XVI commented on this passage in a letter that he wrote to all of the bishops of the world a few years ago. It was in the context of the uproar that arose after he lifted the excommunications that had been imposed on the four illicitly-consecrated bishops of the Society of St. Pius X. Here is what he said:

At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them – in this case the Pope – he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.

Dear Brothers, during the days when I first had the idea of writing this letter, by chance, during a visit to the Roman Seminary, I had to interpret and comment on Galatians 5:13-15. I was surprised at the directness with which that passage speaks to us about the present moment: “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another.”

I am always tempted to see these words as another of the rhetorical excesses which we occasionally find in Saint Paul. To some extent that may also be the case. But sad to say, this “biting and devouring” also exists in the Church today, as expression of a poorly understood freedom. Should we be surprised that we too are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority, which is love?

“Biting and devouring” is, indeed, a great problem within the Church today, and it is a reflection of the direction our society as a whole is taking. In this time of social networking, of unrestrained broadcasting of sound bites, and of everyone’s being able to have a platform for sharing his or her opinions with a potentially large virtual audience, the temptation is greater than ever for us to be critical of others and to make that criticism known. And it often happens that we are critical without having all the information or without giving sufficient prior reflection… much less the benefit of the doubt.

I try to keep a positive tone on this blog, even as I am also tempted to be critical of this or that thing that is happening in the Church (or of this or that person…). But there are several other sites that I see on a regular basis – indeed, some to which I used to link, but have since removed from my list of daily reads – that seem to make a living out of criticism and recreational outrage.

The internet and other media outlets give us a distorted view of reality. It is analogous to something I once experienced when I worked in banking, and will never forget. A woman called to find out why there was a certain problem with her account, but in the end she wasn’t really interested in an explanation; instead, she just kept screaming into the phone “FIX IT!!!!!”. Every time I would try to explain what was going on she would just scream again. This person could act that way because she was in the privacy of her own home and was separated from me by the medium itself and also by a physical distance. While there are people that will even act that way in public, most would never dare do so. They would instead take a more civilized approach.

Something similar to that unpleasant phone “conversation” that I once had tends to happen with the internet and other new media. It is very easy to read a news article (in which the facts have possibly been selectively reported), form a judgment, and broadcast – via Facebook, Twitter, a blog, or what have you – a scathing criticism about whatever is happening. But meet the person face-to-face and see if you will act that way. Most “normal” people ordinarily will not.

St. Paul’s words today invite us all to reflect on our habits and attitudes and ask ourselves if we also need to, well, “FIX IT!!!!”. Have we fallen for the temptation to “bite and devour” one another in the forms that that can so easily take nowadays? Not that I am talking here only about problems with our use of the internet; there are the “classic” forms that the above sins can take as well: gossip, tale-telling, etc. And they aren’t any less sinful now than they ever were. We all need to reflect upon St. Paul’s words prayerfully and seriously:

For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.

And on this last day of the Month of the Sacred Heart, perhaps we might say again that short, yet so important, prayer:

Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine. Amen.

A favorite contemporary image.

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